By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Losing Isaiah

B-
type
  • Movie
Genre

The conflicting claims of biological and adoptive motherhood make headlines these days, providing more than enough fodder for a dozen movies-of-the-week. But losing isaiah (Paramount, R) ups the heat on the issues as only a high- concept feature movie can (or feels it must). What, asks producer- screenwriter Naomi Foner and her husband, director Stephen Gyllenhaal, if the birth mother is black-a poor, unmarried, reformed crackhead as pretty as Halle Berry? And what if the adoptive mother is white-an upper-middle-class, married social worker as beautifully maternal as Jessica Lange? Adding issues of race to an already complex topic is a calculated move-and Losing Isaiah calculates that the best way to play it is to hedge all bets, starting off ambitious, then finishing up safe. When we first meet Khaila Richards (Berry), she’s crazed for cocaine and dumping her infant son, Isaiah, in a cardboard box in a Chicago alley. Rescued by sanitation workers, the baby is brought to a hospital where Margaret Lewin (Lange) makes her rounds of the pediatric ward. Lange has a wonderful female heft to her-at this point in her singular acting career she projects a compelling, settled gravity. But why does Lewin respond so particularly to this baby, and not to all the others whose pain she has, presumably, felt in her 15 years on the job? She tells her husband (The River Wild’s David Strathairn) and their 11-year-old daughter (Daisy Eagan, the young Tony winner from The Secret Garden) that she wants to adopt Isaiah. And after voicing only perfunctory concern, they’re all down with the program. You can probably suss out what happens next. Three years later, a clean and industrious Khaila, who had thought her son was dead, finds out he’s alive and wants him back. Counsel is hired-black lawyers on both sides to play the game even tougher: Kadar Lewis (Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson) for the plaintiff, Caroline Jones (Jackson’s wife, La Tanya Richardson) for the defendant. Arguments are heard. Decisions are made. Foner’s script is earnest, so very earnest; it’s just not often very believable. On the witness stand, the Lewins are called to task for not providing the boy with books and toys that would allow him to identify with his race-an unlikely oversight for such socially responsible people. Berry, although game, is too poreless and refined by half, like Jada Pinkett in Jason’s Lyric. (She’s loosest before she kicks the habit.) Through sheer force of good acting, though, Lange gives Losing Isaiah its dramatic focus; even when a Hollywood-style utopia prevails, she works overtime to stay real. Her Margaret is the motor of this movie, the moral center, too. What went into this white older mother’s desire to adopt a sickly black baby could have made a great movie on another planet where children in stories aren’t required to be happy before the credits roll. B-

Losing Isaiah

type
  • Movie
Genre
mpaa
  • R
director
  • Stephen Gyllenhaal
Performers
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  • Losing Isaiah
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